Champions League winners and losers
I could have included a section about English clubs in general had Liverpool held onto their lead against Sevilla, but it is probably fitting that Tottenham top the winners list alone. While Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City all triumphed without even conceding a goal, they were first or second seed teams facing third or fourth seeds. As the early loser piece on competition tried to explain, these were expected victories. That doesn’t dampen the enjoyment of them, but none of can exactly be lauded.
Yet for Tottenham, victory was markedly different. Their Premier League progress over the last two years may be striking, but it means little in Europe. Knocked out at the first stage of both competitions last season, Spurs were placed in pot three for the group stage draw and promptly received the worst possible outcome. Defending champions and perennial dark horses in the same group? Cheers, guys.
That draw made Tottenham’s home fixture against Dortmund the most important in their group stage, and therefore one of the most important in their season. If Tottenham again fall at the first hurdle then serious questions will be asked about their ability to compete on multiple fronts.
If we reasonably assume that APOEL will take no points in this group and Real Madrid will qualify, Tottenham and Dortmund faced a straight fight for second place. In both the football and boxing sense, Spurs are ahead on points.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side required enough fortune to finally banish the ludicrous notion of a Wembley curse, of course. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s equalising goal should have stood, and less than 30 seconds later Tottenham had their crowning third goal. Dortmund were fluent and adventurous in midfield and caused their hosts headaches before, in between and after their goals, but this was a night on which only the result mattered.
Avoid defeat in Germany in November and one of Tottenham’s principal aims for the season will have been realised, barring any bizarre results in other matches in this group. That would represent not only a significant step forward for a club required to re-prove the doubters wrong every season, but also a sizeable achievement given the draw they were handed. Now to win at this stadium in the Premier League…
Two goals on Saturday with his right foot, two on Wednesday with his left. Perhaps Kane takes August off every year to give everyone else a chance?
Since the beginning of 2014/15, Kane has now scored 98 times in 144 games for Tottenham. That is an astonishing record for someone so young, someone so English and someone not at a truly elite club. It’s also incredible given Kane’s multipurpose role in Mauricio Pochettino’s attacking system.
They are different types of players, but that goal record is also almost identical to Wayne Rooney’s at his Manchester United peak in the three seasons from 2009/10 onward when Rooney scored 80 goals in 121 club games, 0.68 goals per game (Kane) vs 0.66 (Rooney). The comparison is far from ideal, but still striking. Rooney started that golden period at the age of 24; Kane has only just turned that age.
“Kane was fantastic,” Pochettino said after Kane’s latest two goals. “You can see today, scoring goals in the Champions League. He receives the credit he deserves. For me he’s one of the best strikers in the world. In the Champions League, the most important competition in the world, scoring will give him the credit he deserves.”
You won’t find me disagreeing. It is probably Kane’s Englishness that stops us ever truly believing that he is a superstar of the world game, but the reasons for doub are diminishing by the week. The boy’s a bloody gem.
Paris Saint-Germain and that forward line
Given all the talk of geopolitical power plays and statement purchases, it’s easy to overlook the fact that PSG now have the best attack in world football.
Even reading that sentence, it jars a little. But what about…well there’s…you forgot about…erm…yeah, you’re probably right. No other team combines skill (Neymar), pace (Kylian Mbappe) and power (Edinson Cavani) quite like them. All three are wonderful finishers to boot.
PSG have now scored 24 goals in six Ligue 1 and Champions League matches. Even if there are doubts about Thiago Motta’s 35-year-old legs and the reliability of goalkeeper Alphonse Areola, their tactic of ‘we’ll score more than you’ is always likely to see the maths weighted in their favour.
The greatest aspect of PSG’s forward line is not the individual brilliance (although that is obvious), but the cohesive unit Unai Emery has at his disposal. Many of football’s financial superpowers, particularly those with new money, have made the mistake of collecting big-name, big-money attacking players and assuming that the shared talent alone will be sufficient to guarantee success. The reality is very different.
For a while, that was PSG too. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the centre of attention, Cavani was farmed wide, crowbarred into the team despite the role suiting neither party. It is no secret that Cavani came close to leaving Paris.
Now, PSG have three round pegs in three round holes. Neymar prefers to play from the left, picking the ball up from deep before dribbling at his man and delighting in the spaces between full-back and central defender. Mbappe prefers to operate from the right, sometimes winger and sometimes forward but always looking to run beyond the last man and bear down on goal. That leaves Cavani to play as a central striker, his natural role. The Uruguayan has scored nine times in 518 league and Champions League minutes this season.
That is what financial might should be about, if the spenders are intelligent. Not collecting star players as if they were trinkets, leaving a squad bloated and top-heavy, but spending vast sums to create the perfect blend of attributes.
PSG’s front three alone contains Plans A, B and C. If Neymar doesn’t get you, Cavani will. If Cavani doesn’t get you, the best young player in the world is his foil. They will take some stopping.
Antonio Conte and his Chelsea squad
Our early winners. As Sarah Winterburn wrote:
‘A total rest for key players Alvaro Morata and David Luiz, almost-total rest for new signings Antonio Rudiger and Tiemoue Bakayoko, just enough rest for his reliable machines N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta, a confidence boost for Michy Batshuayi, a fillip for Andreas Christensen, another half-hour for Eden Hazard and a new hero in Davide Zappacosta.’
Conte could not have planned it more perfectly. Look out, Arsenal.
A performance exactly like Saturday’s: Authoritative, efficient and gloriously easy. Not only did Manchester City win their opening group stage game 4-0 for the second year running to virtually assure qualification after one match, but Pep Guardiola was able to give key players a rest. City have now scored 11 times since they last conceded.
Still serving his domestic ban, but picked up exactly where he left off in May’s final. In his 32 Champions League games since turning 30, Ronaldo has scored 35 times. He is the true pillar of this competition.
For balance, before the type of football fan who supports only one player leaves their Mum’s house specifically to track me down: Messi has now scored 29 goals in his last 30 Champions League matches, and he’s not even the central striker.
In three years’ time, when players are being swapped for member states rather than transfer fees and Gabriel Jesus has just turned 23, we might look back and wonder how the shuddering heck Manchester City managed to sign him for just £27m.
At the age of 20, in a new country on a new continent with a new culture and either side of a nasty injury, Jesus has scored at a rate of better than a goal every 100 minutes for City. This kid really is the business.
For balance, before the type of football fan who cannot face a rival being praised leaves their Mum’s house specifically to track me down: Rashford does not turn 20 until next month, and has now scored on his debuts in the Premier League, Europa League, Champions League, League Cup and for the England national team. He is also the business.
Crisis? What crisis? Let Dan Bridges give you the non-rhetorical answers to those two questions…
Six goals in his first six Manchester United games, and goals on his debut in the Premier League and Champions League.
Yet most impressive on Tuesday was Lukaku’s hold-up play and contribution to the team’s attacks outside the penalty area. Intelligent play, if you will. Who’d have thought it possible?
To pinch a few lines from the Mailbox on Wednesday morning:
‘I laughed when we paid over the asking price in the summer of 2013.
I sighed when it turned out to be our only piece of significant business that summer.
I sank into the chair when I watched his performances through-out that season.
I was surprised when he lasted the following manager’s tenure.
I swore every time he came on to the pitch swinging elbows.
I hoped that the latest manager would rectify the situation in the summer.
I cheered last night when the goal went in.
I’ve drunk the Kool Aid.
Fellaini is amazing.
He is United’s most important player.
And I am not joking.’
Sixteen months ago, Doumbia was failing to make the bench of a team destined for Championship football. Now he’s scoring goals in Champions League wins. Dreams can come true.
Doesn’t immediately look like a £30m striker, but nor might anyone who was given such brief opportunities to impress. Batshuayi has now been at Chelsea for 14 months, and has played just 875 minutes in all competitions.
If his career is stagnating, the goal record isn’t. The Belgian has scored 12 times during those fleeting visits to the pitch.
A sodding magician, and we are reminded of that fact so very often. With Silva, namesake Bernardo and Kevin De Bruyne behind an attack of Sergio Aguero and Jesus, it’s a wonder that Feyenoord’s defenders didn’t burst into tears before kick-off like a timid mascot scared of the referee.
The early loser, and I can’t apologise for the pessimism. I love football enough to gorge upon it in any and every form, but it’s easy to see why those closer to the periphery (yes, like Hull) might be losing interest in the Champions League group stage.
Still, that just means you need a big weekly written feature that tells you all you need to know about what happened…
You can go and read the piece, but I’m taking on the challenge:
“We have four centre-backs; I don’t think we need more. Just at the moment I’m fine. The transfer market is open until August 31. We cannot force the things and we would never get a centre-back just for the sake of it. Look out there and tell me five that would make us stronger. Five. Then you win a prize” – Jurgen Klopp, August 6.
Even if we use Dejan Lovren as the yardstick to beat rather than Joe Gomez or Ragnar Klavan, this is an easy business. Deep breath:
Harry Maguire, Ben Gibson, Michael Keane, Davinson Sanchez, Jamaal Lascelles, Kurt Zouma, Kevin Wimmer, Jonny Evans, Holger Badstuber, Stefan de Vrij, Jonathan Tah, Inigo Martinez, Kalidou Koulibaly, Antonio Rudiger, Nacho, Jorge Mere, Malang Sarr, Dayot Upamecano, Matthijs de Ligt, Matthias Ginter, Alfie Mawson.
There’s 21 to start you off with, Jurgen.
And therein lies Celtic’s greatest problem, dominant in a financial league of one in a domestic league that they could feasibly win for the next ten years, yet without the financial clout to lay a finger on Europe’s best.
If the romantic notion is that Celtic Park’s European atmosphere can inspire their side to be greater than the sum of its usual parts, the trick no longer works. Celtic have not won a home game in the Champions League proper since October 2013 against Ajax. That victory represented their only three points in the group stage that season.
For all Rodgers’ domination of the domestic game, his performance in Europe is abject. Celtic cannot reasonably expect to compete seriously with Barcelona or PSG, but there is an arrogance or naivety about the way Rodgers has set his team up in those matches as if they can go toe-to-toe with such stellar opposition. Celtic have lost those three matches since the beginning of last season by an aggregate scoreline of 14-0.
When you face any team as the underdog, there are several cliched strategies that must be followed. You need to stay tight to key players, tell attackers and midfielders to hound the man in possession, defend with a deep line, look to counter or profit from set pieces and keep the score at 0-0 for as long as possible. Celtic played PSG the same way they might play Ross County on Saturday, and were picked apart.
You can’t be too hard on Rodgers, given the financial chasm between the two teams. Yet with Bayern Munich also in Group B, Celtic will again be fighting for a Europa League place that Anderlecht are favourites to achieve. After a period of great enjoyment in the Champions League, Celtic could be heading for last place in their group for the third campaign in succession.
The lingering suspicion after last year’s final was that Juventus had missed their last great opportunity to win the Champions League with this generation of players. There was nothing in the 3-0 defeat to Barcelona to suggest otherwise.
Max Allegri was hugely unfortunate to draw the best second seed, but Juve capitulated in the Camp Nou. Pressure now on the three upcoming games against Sporting CP and Olympiakos. Group D is one of the more competitive groups in this competition.
Portugal’s ‘big two’
Portugal were one of the countries who lost out after UEFA’s alteration of the seeding process to give greater kudos to teams that won their domestic leagues. It was an attempt to avoid the scenario whereby Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Malmo and Ajax – all domestic champions – were in the same group, and Arsenal were in a higher pot than Manchester City despite finishing two places below them in the Premier League.
In 2013/14, Porto and Benfica were both given top seed status, despite one of them finishing second in Europe’s fifth-ranked league. This season Benfica were top seeds, but Porto were pushed down to second billing.
It was a terrible start for both, losing at home to CSKA Moscow and Besiktas respectively in two of the biggest shocks of this Champions League gameweek. With Benfica likely playing for second place behind Manchester United, defeat to CSKA could be terminal for their chances of progression.
Porto’s situation is now even more perilous, losing at home to the least fancied team in a group that also contains Monaco and RB Leipzig. With Sporting CP in with Barcelona and Juventus (although after an excellent win in Greece), Portugal could be without a team in the knockout stages.
A formidable home record is in tatters. Between 2007 and 2015, Olympiakos played 18 home group stage games in the Champions League and won 13 of them, including victories over Arsenal (three times), Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund.
Since then, the only team they have beaten is a Dinamo Zagreb side that failed to collect a single point in the group stage. On Tuesday, Olympiakos lost to the third best team in Portugal. Another campaign virtually ended in gameweek one.
Victory over the same opposition in November is likely to guarantee progression to the knockout stages, but Napoli’s loss to Shakhtar was hugely deflating for those of us who have watched Maurizio Sarri’s team over the last two years. One of European football’s most exciting clubs fell flat on their face on opening night.